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Million-vote Poll Affirms Medellin’s Rebirth

Neal Peirce / Mar 14 2013

For Release Sunday, March 17, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWhy would Medellín, Colombia, once known as the bloody base of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and murder capital of the world, be voted the City of the Year in an Internet poll with close to 1 million votes cast?

And especially, how could Medellín garner more votes than the two other finalist cities – Tel Aviv, Israel’s modern star city, and New York, the global economic powerhouse?

Gondola line serving isolated favelas in Medellín

Most likely it’s Medellín’s amazing escape from its notoriously violent past. As the city’s mayor, Aníbal Gaviria, noted when the final vote results were announced by the sponsors, Citi and the Wall Street Journal’s marketing department:

“Medellín stands out because having lived through very dark and difficult times 20 years ago, we have been undergoing a true metamorphosis, from pain and fear to hope, innovating at every step, both in social programs and urban developments.”


Managing the process for the Internet poll was the nonprofit Urban Land Institute (ULI), which has broadened its historic focus on real estate to the varied and broad avenues for city advances worldwide. ULI selected the first 200 cities for the competition and then chose the finalists through a combination of public votes and its own research. The final choice rested on 100 percent public voting at wsj.com/ad/cityoftheyear, with Citi and the Wall Street Journal pushing the event with their multimillion-name e-mail lists. Some 980,000 readers responded.

The clearest signal of Medellín’s arc of recovery isn’t new construction downtown, as substantial as that’s been. It’s social inclusion – an ambitious series of cable cars (gondolas) serving hillside communities, added to the city’s already expansive public transportation system – including, most recently, a $7 million escalator climbing one of the steepest mountainsides. And why? To connect favelas – shanty towns, many wretchedly poor and isolated – to the center city and its job opportunities.

Long commutes – previously as long as two hours – now take just minutes. Human lives are dramatically improved. As noted U.S. urbanist Michael Mehaffy described the escalator project in ULI’s Urban Land Magazine:

“Where once residents trudged up a dangerous, sewage-laden park – a hike equivalent to scaling a 28-story building – they now pass uniformed attendants as they step onto covered escalators, taking them up a steep, visually stunning axis.”

Along the way are new, small plazas where homegrown businesses have sprung up, enhanced by lush plants and public art. The improvements aren’t unique: Across the steep hillsides of Medellín’s once deeply isolated favelas, the city has been investing in new libraries, parks and schools, many with striking architecture. Several stations have advisory services for micro-enterprises. A critical message is conveyed: This city’s residents, however poor, are respected and valued.

Much of current-day Medellín’s progress began under its former mayor, Sergio Fajardo, now governor of the surrounding province of Antioquia. Fajardo subscribed to the theory of “urban acupuncture” developed and articulated by Jaime Lerner, the famed former mayor of Curitiba, Brazil.

The idea, as I heard Lerner explain it on a 2000 trip to Curitiba, is fundamental respect for all citizens, even in the poorest neighborhoods. The city provides health clinics, decent schools, strong public transit links – a respect that engenders “co-responsibility,” neighborhoods in turn developing their own housing, cottage industries and resistance to gangs and crime.

Medellín has also successfully adopted “participatory budgeting.” Under the system, first developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, citizens are invited to debate and make real choices on how city-allocated funds will be spent in their areas. The system is especially important for people living in isolated slums on the city outskirts.

Life is not perfect in today’s Medellín. Crime, though radically reduced from its past levels, is still disturbingly high (more than 1,000 murders last year in a city of 2.7 million people).

But Medellín’s spirits have soared. The center city thrives, there’s a new science museum and the modern metro rail system has eased pollution and crowding in the city’s main traffic arteries. Government and businesses have collaborated in a number of public-private partnerships.

And Medellín has recently received yet another recognition: the decision of UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency focused on cities and their future, to hold its next biennial World Urban Forum, in 2014, in Medellín. Some 8,000 to 10,000 city leaders and observers, from across the globe, will be present. They’ll see the wealth of Medellín’s offerings. But it’s a safe bet that most of them will also be climbing onto the cable cars, perhaps even riding the new favela-serving escalator – to see, first hand, how Medellín is showing respect for, engaging and investing in, its challenged neighborhoods.

Medellín certainly plans to take full advantage of the occasion. As Mayor Gaviria told the last World Urban Forum (in Naples, last September) Medellín sees the 2014 event as “an opportunity to share our metamorphosis with the whole world.”


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

3 Comments

  1. raquel penalosa
    Posted March 14, 2013 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    I can certainly be admirative of Medellin and the incredible resilience than the city has shown and manly because it is not only an infrastructure renewal but deeply a social transformation. I was In Medellin last October at the IFLA Regional Conference on the subject of borders landscapes on the alert… and as a Colombian and having studied the profound transformation that the City of Bogota went through in the 1990, 2000, Medellin has proven that political engagement with a social vision can takes us a step farther. It will be important to recognize that this changes are also based on governance innovation and a strong education perspective and programs. Both Antanas Mockus, the mayor of Bogota before Penalosa that led the way with his “cultura ciudadana” program and Sergio Fajardo are educators at heart believing that urban transformation cannot happen without social and citizen advancement and engagement. Today, as the governor of the “state of Antioquia” Fajardo’s plan is called “Antioquia la mas educada”. “Antioquia the most educated”. His plan integrates education with social and urban transformation throught the state. Medellin is certainly moving in the right direction to lead the WUF in 2015 as a resilient and innovative city. I appreciate the importance that Citiwire gives to the efforts of cities of the South of the Continent to make sound change.

  2. Allen E Neyman
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Hope I’m wrong, but sounds like “too good to be true”. Let’s revisit the topic when sponsored popularity contests are not the measure.

  3. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted March 15, 2013 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Medellin’s social inclusion policies are in direct contrast to NYC driving poor out with gentrification, now having largest homeless rise of a US city to boot! Brookings has also focused on the growing inequity gap in NYC.
    Tel Aviv apears to have miore in common with NYC than Medellin. There is also an anti African immigrant policy in Israel, to which Tel Aviv is not stranger. Meanwhile RE Costs are so high Israelis are running out of the country-even all the way to Berlin, Germany! Israelis have been doing mass protests for failing middle class-let alone the poor. How can you consider prizes for cities that make life difficult for middle class and poor?